When he was a teenager, John Guare saw a production of Tamburlaine the Great in which the title conqueror unrolled a map of the world and walked across it. "That one image so overwhelmed me," he writes in his book The War Against the Kitchen Sink, "that I could no longer watch TV miniatures like the original Marty set in living rooms like mine ... I wanted attention to be paid only to Tamburlaine or his mirror, the hilarious fools who thought they were Tamburlaine striding over the map of their own private world."
In A Free Man of Color, a glorious cancer of color, language, history, and amalgamated nonsense (some of it thrillingly inspired, the rest mostly entropic), Guare is Tamburlaine — albeit the latter-day, ADD version. He's not so much "striding" as dashing back and forth over a molten map of his own rapidly metastasizing imagination, while director George Wolfe plunges after him, doing his damnedest to keep the playwright inside his own ever-dissolving borders.
Free Man is the first full-length play from Guare (best known for his 1990 zeitgeist classic Six Degrees of Separation) in almost twenty years, and while you can't call the thing a success, it's hard to dismiss it as a complete failure either: Its collapse is inspiring to behold. Mirroring its fractious milieu ("the freest city in the world," pre–Louisiana Purchase New Orleans in 1801) perhaps a bit too deliberately, the play has been force-fed everything from the rococo conventions of Restoration comedy to hanks of Shakespeare and Stephen Ambrose to the contemporary racial politics of the post-Katrina Big Easy. Here's Napoleon in a bathtub sporting ordnance as a codpiece, a fat Infanta gnawing a turkey leg,
Thomas Jefferson charging macaroni to the White House tab — it's an off-kilter carousel of historical sketch comedy. The results are, by turns, uproarious, cornball, breathtaking, incoherent, deeply moving, and often just unaccountably silly. Free Man's bones never quite knit, and its history as a commissioned epic, crazy-quilted out of lavish, loving research, can be detected at every bumpy seam. (It lacks the strong unifying conceit of, say, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, its blood brother in historical Cuisinart.) What this beautiful boondoggle possesses instead is language and ambition, a sumptuous table set with brocaded poesy, luxurious allusion, hallucinatory imagery. It's a dazzling mess, no doubt. But like all great, mad manifestos, there are sweet rewards for those willing to take the plunge.
Appropriately for a text so overgrown and unnavigable, Guare's fictional hero, the Über-rich mulatto power broker and indefatigable womanizer Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright), is obsessed with maps. With help from his wry Jeevesian slave, Murmur (Mos Def, Wright's Topdog/Underdog co-star), Cornet collects cartography, always searching for a fabled river passage to the West — the better to obtain his silks from Shanghai. (He prefers a certain splendor: the velvets, hosiery, and wiggery that will soon go out of style.) Cornet is an explorer, of sorts, but his terrain isn't physical: He wants the world to come to New Orleans, the better for him to conduct it like a symphony orchestra. Having obtained his white father's blessing as well as his cash, Cornet now more or less runs the town, bagging the wives of the city fathers (blowhard Spaniards, wheedling Englishmen, naive Americans) even as they come to him, on bended knee, pleading for his money and his favor.
Like everyone else in Free Man, Cornet speaks in lilting verse, rhyming couplets hither and thither to round off his thoughts. Most of the characters address the audience, or speak as if they're declaiming to the gallery. No one really seems embedded in the story. Which is fortunate, because for a very long time—the entire first act, really—there is no story. There are facts, characters (real and not), glistering epigrams, meticulous erudition and farcical bric-a-brac. But Cornet himself barely makes an impact on his own plot practically until intermission, where he picks up a plot thread lifted affectionately from Wycherly's The Country Wife. Wright is a performer of matchless poise and power, but you can feel him struggling to find something to hold on to beneath Cornet's brave fripperies. He's telling his own story, or so Guare's prologue would have us believe. "What would it be about?" asks Murmur. "The sanctity of surfaces," answers Cornet. "The value of veneer." Yet both actor and audience clearly yearn for more, and, for a long, long while, more is not forthcoming.
The second act significantly more engaged and engaging, and nervous pastiche gives way to pulsating nightmare as Cornet is dispossessed by political upheaval: Feydeauian bedroom farce becomes life-ordeath politicking. The young continent is growing older, grimmer. Cornet is cut adrift in a measureless wilderness that is now suddenly and arbitrarily America, by way of the Louisiana Purchase. It's an "alien whiteness" that calls to lost souls like explorer Meriwether Lewis (a haunted Paul Dano), and Cornet, a great savorer of color, finds himself marooned in negative space, this endless blank-page oblivion of awful possibility called the Future, much-talked-about but stubbornly not yet arrived. He appeals to an American God, tetchy Thomas Jefferson (the great John McMartin), who's bothered by the sudden engorgement of his nation to tumescent, ungentlemanly proportions. "I really don't like confrontation," he demurs, when Cornet, suddenly faced with the prospect of compulsory, legal bondage, presses our Third President to define what he meant by "All men are created equal." "Sometimes I curse writing those words. I did write other phrases I thought as winning."
By the time Cornet and Jefferson have their dialogue (one of only a handful of true, respectful exchanges between two characters on an equal intellectual footing), we're deep in the second act. Guare resorts to some very literal and op-ed-ish maneuvers in an attempt to guide us out of the hedge maze he's created. Cornet himself might've been the unifying force, but even he isn't unified. "I do not live in factions," he protests, when Jefferson churlishly brings up his mixed-race parentage. Yet Cornet, like the play, is a nacreous combine, lovely and unwieldy, easy to display but hard to manipulate. That's A Free Man of Color: It's not a map, or even an atlas, but a huge, misshapen, distracted globe, one that even a theatrical Tamburlaine like Guare can't quite figure out how to bestride. That doesn't mean it isn't exhilarating to match him try.
A spectacular folly has just crash-landed at Lincoln Center Theater. Eight years in the making, John Guare's latest play, "A Free Man of Color," is an ambitious, awkward, fascinating, lumbering endeavor about the mapping of America's modern physical, social and racial borders.
Most of the show, directed by George C. Wolfe, is a maddening slog. But the last 30 minutes are so brilliant that you can't dismiss the whole thing.
Set around the time of the Louisiana Purchase, "A Free Man of Color" is a corset-bursting saga featuring 40 characters played by a cast of 32 -- and with seemingly twice as many themes, plots and digressions. It looks as if Guare ("Six Degrees of Separation") couldn't bear to leave out anything he'd unearthed during his massive research.
The first act alone has enough material for five different plays.
Our hero is Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright), a wealthy clotheshorse, prodigal host and prodigiously endowed -- as Guare repeatedly informs us -- womanizer. Since we start off in the multicultural New Orleans of 1801, Cornet's white father and black mother don't appear to hurt his social status.
Cornet is thrown into a vortex of ideas and adventures as fictional figures cross paths with real ones, including President Thomas Jefferson (John McMartin), explorer Meriwether Lewis (Paul Dano) and Haiti's lead revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture (Mos, the former Mos Def).
Clunky exposition ("Napoleon's not emperor yet. He's still first consul, pulling France together after the Revolution," etc.) sits next to anachronistic and ribald jokes, and the overall tone is arch high cartoon. Guare seems to have the mind of an academic savant and the attention span of a rambunctious 8-year-old.
The production is as lavish as can be -- Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are especially glorious -- but you also understand why some audience members flee at intermission.
But then there's the second act -- or rather the end of the second act – during which the play undergoes a change as swift as it is impressive.
The mood turns somber. Halting their frantically busy scenes, Guare and Wolfe pause long enough to create tableaux that are visually striking but also serve the playwright's ideas about Manifest Destiny. Suddenly a brand-new play unfolds in front of our startled eyes. It's a shame that the price we pay for this revelation is so high.
Theatergoers looking to experience the wittiest part of John Guare’s “Free of Man of Color,” the spangled white elephant now rampaging at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, need only pick up a program. You know how practically every Playbill handed out on Broadway these days features a list of producers as long as Shaquille O’Neal’s arm?
Well, Mr. Guare has provided a smashing variation on such credits, just below the title instead of above it. Kicking off with a courtly phrase of acknowledgment (“with deep bows to”), this list includes all-time big-shots like Lord Byron, Euripides, John Milton, Molière, Napoleon Bonaparte, Barbara Bush(!) and Virgil. And, Shakespeare, of course. And William Wycherley, who wrote “The Country Wife,” the Restoration comedy that provides the plot — or one of the plots — for this tale of adultery, racism and the Louisiana Purchase.
Within that multitude of names lies the essence and the central problem of “A Free Man of Color,” which opened on Thursday in a Lincoln Center Theater production. Directed with a bravado that verges on desperation by the redoubtable George C. Wolfe, this big, untidy historical comedy is pretty much the sum of what it cites. And its varied quotations and nuggets of fact never cohere any more than that eclectic list of names below the title.
Eclecticism has always been essential to Mr. Guare’s writing, which at its best juggles mismatched elements of culture, high and low, with daring and dizzying skill. This is the man who memorably combined tabloid prurience (and famous-name dropping) with classic poetic lyricism in “Landscape of the Body,” “The House of Blue Leaves” and “Six Degrees of Separation.” But here, in his first new play on Broadway in 18 years, he seems less to be juggling than tossing bright balls of allusion and information onto the stage and praying that they’ll land in a coherent pattern.
Commissioned in 2002 by the Public Theater (where Mr. Wolfe was then the artistic director), “A Free Man of Color” is obviously the product of much labor by Mr. Guare. But though it has reportedly been trimmed to roughly half its original length (the current running time is two and a half hours), it remains seriously overweight. And there doesn’t seem to be even a fully articulated skeleton beneath its opulent bulk.
Set in New Orleans at the turn of the 19th century, “A Free Man of Color” charts the picaresque life of Jacques Cornet (the talented Jeffrey Wright, doing his best), the mulatto son of a plantation owner and a slave. Jacques, who entertains the multiracial crème of New Orleans in his fancy mansion, has two ruling passions: women and maps. They are, as far as I can tell, quite separate passions, and Mr. Guare never convincingly weaves them together.
Jacques’s habit of bedding the wives of New Orleans’s leading citizens lands him in deep trouble. In this regard, his role model, or Mr. Guare’s, is Horner, the cuckolding central character of Wycherley’s “Country Wife.” (Corne is French for horn.) At other times, Jacques, assisted by his reluctant slave, Murmur (Mos), appears to be borrowing more from Ben Jonson’s Volpone and Mozart and da Ponte’s Don Giovanni. Anyway, these erotic adventures provide the occasion for much awed commentary on the size of Jacques’s penis, which is likened to, among many other things, a sea monster, “lurking beneath the waves.” (Veanne Cox and Nicole Beharie are among the actresses thanklessly required to ooh and aah in response; Sara Gettelfinger has the equally unappetizing role of Jacques’s jealousy maddened wife.)
Size matters in other respects in “Free Man,” which expands its canvas to embrace the events leading to the purchase of the Louisiana territories. Among the many, many characters who show up here, embodied by an estimable but confused cast, are Thomas Jefferson (John McMartin), the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture (Mos again), the French statesman Talleyrand (Reg Rogers), the explorer Meriwether Lewis (Paul Dano) and Napoleon Bonaparte (Triney Sandoval), who is seen rising from his bath with a cannon where his genitalia should be.
The phallic is the most consistently sustained motif in “Free Man,” and it is used as a metaphor for the pros and cons of territorial expansion. (“Like the present size of the United States, I’m perfectly happy with what I’ve got,” says one of Jacques’s sexual rivals.) But Mr. Guare puts other big symbols into play, including the idea of the tolerant, ethnically diverse New Orleans as a doomed Garden of Eden and the uncharted West as a vast, blank alabaster page.
Sometimes Mr. Guare’s characters speak in rhyme. (Jacques to a lover: “We’ll explore all nooks and crannies, with a detour to our fannies.”) Sometimes they quote from lofty sources that include, in addition to Shakespeare and Milton, John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester. Several characters step outside the action to deliver arch, metatheatrical observations.
But whether it takes the form of surreal political satire or world-weary epigrams, nearly all the dialogue feels ersatz. Mr. Guare seems to be striving for the epic, time-bending sweep and political philosophizing of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” (The show features a climactic hallucinatory encounter between Jacques and Jefferson.)
And Mr. Wolfe borrows more than a couple of tricks from his brilliant staging of “Angels” on Broadway, including a gasp-inducing vision of a snowy frontier-land that evokes the imagined Antarctica of Mr. Kushner’s play. But often you get the impression — as you do with Mr. Guare’s script — of glittery effects being piled on like ornate cloaks grabbed in haste from a costume trunk. When Jacques, in his introductory speech, hails “the sanctity of surfaces, the value of veneer,” he might be stating this production’s credo.
Designed with sumptuous style by David Rockwell (sets), Ann Hould-Ward (costumes) and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (lighting), “A Free Man of Color” can’t be faulted for its veneer. And perhaps the kindest way to look upon it is as an extravagant costume party, like the bal masqué that begins the second act. Unfortunately, what’s been disguised to the point of obscurity in the play are the great natural talents of nearly everyone involved.
Earlier this season, Lincoln Center Theater placed a risky bet on an adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. They opened it cold, without the benefit of an out-of-town test run, and hoped Patti LuPone could carry it. Tonight, L.C.T. effectively doubles down by opening another ambitious, new play. A Free Man of Color is playwright John Guare’s first work on Broadway in 18 years. This time, in a role written expressly for him, actor Jeffrey Wright does the heavy lifting— swathed in velvet and lace, no less.
As Jacques Cornet, a wealthy, mixed-race bon vivant, Wright woos women and irks men as he struggles to retain power in 19th-century New Orleans. The expansive story includes 45 characters, allowing several actors to show off their range. (Notably, Veanne Cox shifts from a prudish lady scientist to cantankerous Robert Livingston, and Mos Def—billed here as “Mos”—delivers contrasting performances as Cornet’s slave and a Haitian revolutionary.) Historical figures (Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and many more) appear throughout the play. When they aren’t speaking in rhyme, and often when they are, they’re making literary allusions. You might recognize a Lord Byron sonnet or a Shakespearean soliloquy or even a line from Barbara Bush. (The playwright’s acknowledgments imply it’s in there, but I didn’t catch it. Then again, there’s a lot to catch.)
To keep up the energy of this marathon production, set designer David Rockwell and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward offer up trapdoors and reader boards and Whoville hair and ruffled lingerie. In its opening act, the play looks like a pastry shop. Then the plot takes a turn for the dark—cue the fever-infested slave ship—and the audience realizes that all the pre-intermission glitz and glam is just a spoonful of sugar to help the second act go down.
By the time Jacques Cornet (now wig-less, in a bearskin) has a wilderness bro-down with Merriwether Lewis (played by the excellent Paul Dano), one may be hardpressed to stay connected with this historical revision. Despite the production’s clever direction, gorgeous costumes, inventive sets, and skilled cast, it's a toughie. With an original run time of five and a half hours (now coming in at three), one can imagine director George C. Wolfe’s trimming Guare’s script as a tailor would Cornet’s jacket. But there’s only so much one can do when given too much fabric.
Let the weeping and wailing (and public floggings) begin. "A Free Man of Color," John Guare's epic play about the fortunes of a wealthy free man of color in New Orleans during that revolutionary era when the 1803 Louisiana Purchase made an empire of our small nation, is not the glorious work it might have been. Through some misguided impulse to play its high comic elements as low sex farce, both scribe and helmer George C. Wolfe have undermined the play's grand historical sweep. Despite some dazzling writing, spectacular stage effects, a cast of thousands, and a lavish production budget, much of Guare's ambitious work is reduced to a busy bore.
Lincoln Center's vast Beaumont stage was built for epic theater and Wolfe is the kind of visionary director who isn't afraid to use it, so this lavish production does not lack for spectacle.
The ornate proscenium stage that frames the action in David Rockwell's expansive set design boldly establishes the show's inherent theatricality. Through the magic of theater (and the professional savvy of an inspired design team), the great stage here accommodates such wonders as a fulldress
Mardi Gras ball, the vast unexplored wilderness of the Louisiana territory, and flying trips to France, Spain, and the West Indies.
Collectively, the scenes present the rich historical panorama of a young nation emerging from its 18th-century birth and groping for political purchase in modern times. Individually, they capture deciding moments in history, wittily re-told from Guare's irreverent modern perspective.
Here's Napoleon (Triney Sandoval) immersed in his bath and brooding over his territorial losses to England: "I hate the British. I hate Shakespeare. I hate Chaucer. I hate Richard the Lion-Hearted. And when the future comes, I will hate Queen Victoria, James Bond, Charles Dickens."
But while Guare's jaunty deconstructions of these complex historical events -- part of a cheeky trend currently represented on Broadway by "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" and "Colin Quinn: Long Story Short" -- are staged with wonderful crispness and clarity, they are shouted down by the buffoonish character in the drama at the heart of the piece.
This is the story of Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright), a mulatto born into slavery who used his inheritance from his white father to buy his freedom and become the wealthiest man in New Orleans. For a libertine with Cornet's rich endowments -- as a man of great wealth, extravagant tastes, and insatiable sexual appetite -- the sexually permissive and racially progressive city of New Orleans is paradise on earth.
But while sexual licentiousness satisfies Cornet's manhood, it's fashion that feeds his narcissistic ego -- and brings him to grief.
This Beau Brummel is so enamored of the luxurious fabrics he buys from Persia and China (on gorgeous display in Ann Hould-Ward's elaborate costumes) that he becomes obsessed with finding a quicker route to transport these goods to the Port of New Orleans. To this end, he collects maps of the wilderness west of the Mississippi, where a great inland river is rumored to exist. It is Guare's most amusing conceit that America's acquisition of Louisiana hinges on Cornet's love of high fashion.
In concept, Cornet is a fabulous character of infinite charm. In Wright's bombastic perf, he's a vulgar fool who doesn't seduce women as much as devour them. Guare may have concocted his clever plot from some of the greatest farces in the English language (and lifted some good stuff from Moliere), but his broad treatment of his sources ignores the elegance of the form. And unlike his smooth handling of the historical scenes of political satire, Wolfe's coarse approach to sex comedy kills what remains of the humor.
Some members of the ensemble manage to make it to high ground. Mos brings as much dignity to Cornet's browbeaten slave, Murmur, as he does to the noble revolutionary Toussaint Louverture. Another of Cornet's slaves, Dr. Toubib, is indeed the voice of reason in Joseph Marcell's unmannered perf. And Veanne Cox is such a comic perfectionist that she survives one of Cornet's most ridiculous seductions.
Performers cast in multiple roles invariably do their best work when they're satirizing historical figures. But it takes a strong-willed thesp -- someone like young Nicole Beharie, who is quite cute as Margery Jolicoeur, the naughty "country wife" who innocently delivers Cornet to his enemies -- to keep from being swept up in Cornet's clownish games.
To call a work of art "sprawling" is not necessarily a bad thing. Some canvases are naturally larger than others, and critics who (like me) have a built-in bias in favor of careful craftsmanship must always be on guard lest it cause them to underrate a masterpiece whose corners aren't tucked in. If neatness is what you expect from John Guare's "A Free Man of Color," you'll be doomed to disappointment. Mr. Guare's ambitious new play, which tells the fantastic tale of Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright), a 19th-century millionaire playboy from New Orleans who happens to be black, has a cast of 33 and runs for 2½ crowded hours. Yes, it sprawls, but for all its hectic messiness, "A Free Man of Color" is one of the three or four most stirring new plays I've seen since I started writing this column seven years ago.
Set in 1801, just before the Louisiana Purchase brought New Orleans under the thumb of Washington, "A Free Man of Color" starts out as a bawdy Restoration-style comedy of bad manners in which the Big Easy is portrayed as a prelapsarian Eden to whose richer citizens the concept of racial prejudice is as alien as the shadow of sexual guilt. Even though he's black, Cornet is well-heeled enough to have slaves of his own, and the fact that he is so wealthy and attractive (Mr. Guare describes him as "a dazzling piece of work") insulates him from the common plight of his fellow blacks. The first act, in which his sexual misadventures are cataloged in frenzied detail, plays like a 10-door farce salted with so many laughs that you won't have time to catch your breath.
In the second act, history catches up with Monsieur Cornet. No sooner does Thomas Jefferson (John McMartin) approve the purchase of the Louisiana Territory than his status as a "free man of color" is revoked, and New Orleans's gaudiest peacock is shorn of his feathers and sold into slavery, a terrible denouement described by Mr. Guare in language that approaches the condition of poetry: "Don't tell me there is no promised land. Imagine going to the moon and finding nothing there…. I am a eunuch now that I lack my dreams."
I don't have enough space to do more than say that George C. Wolfe's staging is the kind of which playwrights dream, almost always in vain. The skill with which he modulates from the comedic gallopade of the first act to the bitter eloquence of the final scene is beyond explaining: All I can do is admire the results. Mr. Wright's performance sizzles with haughty passion, and the rest of the ensemble cast, Mr. McMartin and Nicole Beharie in particular, matches him line for line. As for Ann Hould-Ward's eye-tickling period costumes, they deserve an admiring review all to themselves.
It's been 18 years since the author of "Six Degrees of Separation" last brought a show to Broadway. This one, by all accounts, was revised to the hilt in previews, but you'd never guess it from seeing the finished product, which plays as though it had been written in a single protracted blaze of inspiration. So complex a work must be read and seen repeatedly before a responsible critic can hope to render anything like a balanced judgment on its merits. That said, I felt after seeing it for the first time that "A Free Man of Color" just might be a masterpiece, and that feeling is still with me as I write these words.